Leno drives the Mercedes-Benz SSKL, the Bugatti Chiron of the 1930s
This recreated 1932 Mercedes-Benz SSKL looks, from the front, “like someone punched it in the face,” Jay Leno says, frankly. True, in the 1930s, aerodynamics was more theory than science, but the reason SSKLs “frightened the hell out of other racers” in the ’30s wasn’t their looks—it was their power.
Barely 40 years after the birth of the automobile, and in a day when Ford’s V-8s pumped out a grand 65 horsepower, the supercharged, cast-iron straight-six in the SSKL boasted 320 hp. The four track-exclusive, lightened SSKLs (hence the “L”) received the top tune of this motor and notched speeds up to 150 mph—mind-boggling in the early ’30s.
When an SSKL won the 1932 Avus race in Berlin with Manfred von Brauchitsch behind the wheel, it founded the dynasty of Mercedes-Benz “silver arrows.” Ironically, it wasn’t even supposed to be silver—aerodynamics pioneer Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld designed the funky-looking bodywork, and the team didn’t have time to paint on the traditional white German racing livery before the race. In a radio broadcast in 1932, as the car streaked down a five-mile straight to victory, that 150-mph SSKL first earned the moniker of “silver arrow.”
The car residing in Leno’s collection—and featured in the latest edition of Jay Leno’s Garage—is a meticulous recreation of that ’32 Avus-winning car, using a painstakingly lightened and tuned SSK chassis as a base. When Mercedes-Benz Classic USA manager Michael Kunz helps Leno remove the engine cover, Leno can’t help but admire the motor: “It’s so overengineered… just beautiful. Oh man.” The OHC straight-six displaces 7.0 liters (or roughly 421 cubic inches), inhales through two carburetors, and has two valves per cylinder. Its infamous supercharger soaks up approximately 25 horsepower at speed and is known as “The Elephant.” Boost is on-demand via a clutch off the crankshaft, and when engaged, the supercharger pulls additional fuel from a small vacuum tank on the firewall. “This was the height of technology in the late ’20s and early ’30s,” Leno explains.
However, the mighty “elephant” of a supercharger had an Achilles’ heel; it was only designed for short bursts of power. An SSKL fell prey to a Bentley, whose driver egged on his Mercedes rival to keep his foot to the floor beyond the blower’s recommended 10 seconds. When he pilots the chugging cucumber-shaped racer onto the streets of L.A., Leno doesn’t test this metric—but even as he yells over the motor’s roar, his delight is evident. “It’s like going to the gym when you’re driving this.” There’s no mechanical assist for steering and the brakes are rod-driven, not hydraulic. “I can’t even imagine 140 mph and pressing that pedal to the floor—those guys had a lot of guts.”
We’ll second that motion—and tip our hat to Leno for piloting this priceless beast of a pre-war race car around Ford Transit vans and semi haulers in L.A…. while narrating the whole experience. Watch and enjoy.